the Maya and Their Place in the Sun

Much of what we know of the Maya culture has been gained in the last few decades. Before that time all we had to go on was the remnants of the tribes living in Central America today and the scant records left us by the Spaniards who conquered the region over four centuries ago – the few conscientious priests who decided to spare a little of the culture from the flames of the Inquisition.

A lot of the early period of the Maya is cloudy and only just now coming to light as archaeologists are finding new sites, so the field is in flux. The theories of their origins is constantly changing because of this new inflow of data, but a few basics can be listed.

First, their civilization is the one that has left more written records than any other and, secondly, their descendants still maintain a cultural cohesion greater than the other ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. It is perhaps these two facts that give us a clearer view of the Maya than their predecessors and neighbors.

In many respects they are similar to ancient cultures around the world: agricultural orientation, a multitude of gods, and an intense interest in the movements of the planets in the heavens.

Their differences set them apart from other cultures beyond Mesoamerica: varieties of a ritual ballgame, ritual bloodletting, an intricate multi-part calendar, the lack of domesticated animals, and no evidence of wheeled vehicles. These qualities were also represented in the other civilizations of the area. Whether the Maya invented any of these things is still in debate, but none deny that the Maya were the first to utilize all these and create an extensive culture.

Did the Maya invent any of the calendars they lived by? Some think their Olmec predecessors should be credited with it but though the oldest dated fragments lie beyond the standard Maya area, the oldest lie beyond the Olmec territories as well. Until data can be found assigning authorship to others, I would prefer to continue calling it the Mayan Calendar.

And though the Maya have left us a few written records, the full understanding of their temple inscriptions has been slow coming. The work of Linda Schele and others finally cracked the barrier to more completely reading the temple inscriptions. We learn more daily.

Meanwhile satellite images are helping uncover Mayan cities in Guatemala today. All this will give us further insight into these mysterious people and the calendar they have left us. Some finds in the Puuc region have pushed the inception of the Maya culture back almost a thousand years.

Who knows what they will find next about this amazing civilization.

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2 Responses to “the Maya and Their Place in the Sun”

  1. John Says:

    All I can suggest is that, can you prove that the Olmec’s did not invent this calendar.

    • rsmarshal Says:

      No. And a negative proof is counter-productive anyway. I cannot prove the Toltecs or the Aztecs did not invent it either.

      But, that said, there is no evidence that the Olmecs did create it nor is there evidence the Maya did. The calendar surfaced in the boundary region of the two cultures both geographically and chronologically. Perhaps it was the Olmecs, perhaps the Maya, the proto-Maya, the Zapotecs, or even a hitherto unknown culture.

      More research will have to be done in the region – and a whole lot of digging – to answer that question.

      Until then, all we can do is surmise, not prove.

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